Female thinking

Up is still not the only way

The various approaches to leadership and growth within an organisation

Written by Dr Shaun Ridley FAIM
4 minute read
Female thinking

In her book Up Is Not The Only Way, Dr Beverly Kaye encourages organisations and individuals to look beyond the obsession of viewing vertical advancement to senior leadership as the ultimate measure of career success.

Her view was that rich, meaningful careers could be created from sideways or even downward moves that embrace rewarding roles and ongoing development.

However, given her book was first published in 1997 it would appear we have been slow to challenge the myth of success equalling a promotion.

Blame for the longevity of this myth lies on both sides.

Senior staff are guilty when they retain the belief that unless more junior staff aspire to a supervisor or manager role, then they are somehow unmotivated and certainly not ambitious enough.

Junior staff are guilty when they retain the belief that unless their boss is constantly trying to open new, more senior, higher-paid pathways for career advancement, then they somehow don’t care enough about them or value their contribution and talent.

Whilst both these beliefs could be true of some employees and some bosses, it is certainly not true for all employees and all bosses.

One assumption underpinning this myth is that everyone wants to be a leader.

As the level of compliance rises, the rights of employees expand and the litigiousness of workplaces grows, it’s hard to explain why anyone would think that everyone wants to take on the extra pressure of a leadership role.

One explanation supporting this assumption is the trend towards staff development programs promoting the idea that everyone in the organisation is a “leader”.

This suggests that every employee should take initiative, should be accountable for their own portfolio of work and should assume a “leadership” position in the organisation.

Whilst this sounds great in theory, in practice it is almost impossible to implement given the plethora of personalities, roles and relationships that exist in every organisation.

Is a leader full team the answer?

Sporting organisations have embraced the concept of a “leader full team”.

Rather than a single captain leading the players into battle, clubs are rotating the position of captain, appointing leadership teams with multiple captains and vice captains or, in some cases, not appointing a captain at all because everyone in the team is expected to be a leader.

Some organisations have been quick to adopt this approach, especially if one of the “leader full teams” happens to win the trophy.

However, the context matters greatly here. In contrast to most workplaces, sporting teams enjoy some distinct advantages including:

1. A single, clear, measurable goal (the trophy)
2. A single, clear timeline (the season)
3. Players with clear roles
4. Known competitors whose performances are on public display

Although we often try to replicate some of these characteristics in our workplaces, the sheer complexity of organisations and their stakeholders means we fail to get close to what sporting clubs can produce.

How can we fill the organisation’s pipeline of future leaders?

1. The first characteristic of a potentially good leader is that they are a volunteer.

Reluctant leaders or conscripts to the role are unlikely to succeed. You may occasionally be able to encourage the competent person who lacks the confidence to take on the challenge, but pushing too hard will set the person up to fail.

2. Secondly, let’s stop seeing leadership as binary i.e.: you’re either in a leadership role or you’re not in a leadership role.

Taking up short-term acting positions, leading a project or stretch assignment or even shadowing a more senior leader are all ways you can give people a taste of leadership, after which both you and the person themselves can assess if this is the future for them.

3. Thirdly, ongoing development, support and coaching is essential.

Many leaders are asked to take on the role with no prior training and/or if they do get some at the beginning, they receive no further development. Leadership is a journey and we all need the time and support to hone our skills and grow as leaders.

4. Finally, consider the suite of rewards available to those who take up a leadership position.

These are not just a boost in salary, but a broader package that could include such things as professional development, interesting assignments, flexibility, broader industry exposure or recognition for developing the next generation of leaders. Reflecting on these rewards, are they enough to compensate for the costs in time, pressure and demands?

Up Is Still Not The Only Way

Whilst every organisation is wise to build the pipeline of future leaders and a succession plan for the critical roles, it needs to be remembered that there is a finite number of these more senior roles.

What will you do with and for those people who miss out on their desired promotion or simply don’t aspire to these more senior roles? These employees remain important parts of your organisation’s future success.

How can you work with them to build their potential, develop their talents, and keep them engaged and fully productive contributors to your organisation?

One answer to this important question is to remind everyone that up is not the only way.